When Nature Calls: The Right to the Restroom

In 2010, the United Nations General Assembly declared sanitation a basic human right, but even urban centers like New York City lack adequate public restrooms to serve the millions of residents and tourists. New York restaurants that contain 19 or fewer seats are not legally required to contain restrooms, but police can still charge citizens with a misdemeanor offense for urinating in public when they have nowhere else to relieve themselves. Planners that work to construct dynamic public spaces and foster community connections often consider benches to offer patrons a place for rest and conversation, trash cans to prevent litter, and even art to make streetscapes more aesthetically pleasing, but such spaces often fail to contain facilities that people need to engage in basic human functions.

Public urinals, such as this one found in Copenhagen, Denmark, are not a luxury found in most cities. Source: author’s image

I have found that many New Yorkers have constructed mental maps of bathroom locations that they can use on the go, which often involve sneaking into Starbucks restrooms behind crowded lines. These are the coping strategies that urban citizens employ when their built environment lacks the very structures necessary to pee without fear of arrest.

I embarked on a four-month journey to widen my North Americanized standards for city planning and efficient design, travelling from Buenos Aires, Argentina; Dakar, Senegal; and Hanoi, Vietnam. While on this tour I decided to ask other bathroom warriors how they navigate similar barriers, each facing different challenges based on each city’s characteristics.

In Buenos Aires, I spoke to residents who explained that public, portable restrooms often exist near parks or public squares, but are only open for use during official events. I visited various places interviewees identified as substitutes, mainly shopping malls, coffee shops, and train stations.

These portable restrooms remain locked except for special festivals that occur each weekend. Source: author’s image.
While walking through a high-income residential and commercial waterfront area, I saw a man urinating in this park. Although the area included several restaurants, such spaces are only available to those able to pay for toilet use. Source: author’s image.

Without any Starbucks or McDonald’s or close equivalents, Dakar possesses far fewer accessible commercial bathrooms than New York or Buenos Aires. Instead of relying on restaurants or stores, many residents told me that they would be more likely to knock on a stranger’s door to ask to use a personal toilet. One of the two public restrooms that I did encounter, located in city’s rarely visited zoo, was locked.

This zoo restroom in Dakar sat bolted and in disrepair. Source: author’s image.

In Hanoi, a few poorly maintained public restrooms do exist, but only near the city’s lakes and parks, and they require a small fee. Residents turn to large grocery stores for free toilets, or flock to KFC and buy ice cream (the cheapest item on the menu) in order to gain bathroom access.

This global issue disproportionately affects female-bodied individuals, who cannot urinate outside as easily as male-bodied people, and citizens living in poverty, who are less likely to be able to afford restrooms that require a purchase or fee. In future urban plans and development projects, I hope that leaders prioritize free, safe places to relieve oneself instead of criminalizing a basic human right.

Bio: Martha Isaacs is a third year undergraduate student at UNC majoring in Geography and minoring in City and Regional Planning. Particularly interested in participatory planning and community organizing to increase social capital in neighborhoods, she has worked for the New York City Anti-Violence Project and The Glass-House Community Design in London, UK. In addition to accessible public restrooms, she loves brussel sprouts, dachshunds, and reproductive rights.